Czech Republic: Classroom Secrets

classroom secretsPRAGUE, Czech Republic | Do you know what your child is going through right now among his or her classmates? Just a bit of pushing and shoving that they’ll easily brush off, or dangerous bullying that will mark them for the rest of their lives? The experiences of people who have looked into this aspect of Czech schools suggest a cause for concern rather than complacence. Bullying is a more common than the average parent thinks, and it is very probable that it will involve their child. The question is, then, how do we prevent the worst from happening?

You’ll never get the best footage on a cell-phone video camera, but this time the shaky picture was clear enough. Several pairs of hands have a vise grip on a boy in a dark sweater. They’re dragging him off somewhere between the benches. At first, the boy isn’t really defending himself and he’s smiling a little in a slightly forced way. In a moment, the scene – captured on a classmate’s cell phone video – gets a little more dramatic. When the boy is dragged to the window and forced on to the ledge, he stops smiling and starts to squirm. In vain. The strength of numbers overwhelms him and the victim falls out head first. Luckily, the fall is short. The window is on the ground floor and the boy walks away with just a few bruises.

We are in the village of Pist, which is situated directly on the border with Poland. At first glance, the village has a spick and span look to it. The refurbished church, which tends to be packed during services, and the brand-new facades on the homes sparkle in the afternoon sun. A group of children respectfully say a collective hello to us in the street. Another source of pride for the village is the modern elementary school built in the mid-1990s. And it is precisely here that the police have begun an investigation into the biggest case of schoolyard bullying to attract media attention in the past half year. They have come because they were called by the school principal, who now finds herself in the same situation as hundreds of her colleagues across the country: suddenly, a case of youthful violence has taken place on her watch. Although the incident may not seem in any way dramatic, she has no idea how to deal with it.

The main “hero” of the case spoke to us on condition that we not reveal his identity. Let’s call him Honza. On the cusp of turning 15, he is now in grade nine. He’d like to train to be an auto mechanic when he finishes school. He belongs to the large and amorphous group of average students, and when something goes down at the school, he generally waits to see how it will turn out. This is exactly what he did just a few weeks before the events the police are now investigating, when a small group of overexcited students inaugurated their practice of throwing randomly selected classmates out the window. As long as someone else was the target, Honza just stood by and watched along with the others. Rather than trying to prevent it, he tended to laugh.

But then the same thing happened to him, right after the history class when they learned about the defenestrations of Prague. And just like before, nobody came to his aid. This time, however, the events took a different turn. A teacher noticed him walking around the school building to get back into class. It struck her as strange that the boy was walking around outside without his shoes on. Honza told her what had happened. The teacher went immediately to the principal’s office. And when the principal of the school, Dagmar Ceslova, heard the story, she became very concerned and called the police. She thought the police should decide if it had been “a case of bullying or an innocent game.”

Nothing Special

Basically, it’s a banal story, the likes of which you might hear many times during your school days. Nothing terrible happened to anyone, definitely nothing that would lead to anything similar to the Polish tragedy of last fall, when an unnoticed victim of bullying ended up taking her own life. But the experts have a different opinion. “Usually it starts out as horseplay, but then it develops into a very dangerous thing,” says Michal Kolar, who is probably the Czech Republic’s leading expert on violence in schools and the author of two books on the subject, The Pain of Bullying and The Hidden World of Bullying. “Bullying is not only a virus that corrupts relationships in the classroom, but it is also a trigger for possible tragedies.”

Of course, even banal cases of minor schoolyard violence will attract the attention of parents when they think that something similar could happen to their own child. But the experts on bullying have no comforting news to offer such parents. A survey of students in grades eight and nine released by the Czech School Inspectorate at the end of last year found that 55 percent of such students experienced bullying every month. A study conducted two years ago among students in grades five to eight conducted by AISIS, an agency involved in teacher training, found that 40 percent of Czech children had been victimized by bullying. Kolar was involved in that study as well as in another one conducted in 2001 that made similar findings. It should be noted that the study focused also on the so-called first phase of bullying, including various kinds of remarks, mockery, and so on. Twenty-one percent of students said they were bullied on a daily basis, and every 10th child said he or she had been slapped, punched, or kicked by their fellow students.

“Absolutely anybody can become a victim in an unfortunate set of circumstances, even a good-looking, intelligent, talented, and assertive person,” Kolar says, citing 30 years of experience in this area. “If they start to be pushed around by a bad group, they’re just out of luck. It could be a group that can’t tolerate anything that seems different or stands out. That difference could be related to anything. For instance, the child might want to get good grades and most of their fellow students make fun of that. Or they don’t wear brand-name clothes like the others.” Role reversals are also common, he says. Those who simply passively watched or laughed at an incident of bullying may end up as the next victim.

Kolar, a psychotherapist, sees these typical characteristics of bullying reflected in the Pist case: repeat incidents, a powerless victim, humiliation, and the formation of a group of aggressors. According to the categories outlined in his book The Pain of Bullying, this behavior fall into the “third stage” of bullying. “It is marked by the formation of a core assault group. This core systematically bullies the most opportune, or in other words the most vulnerable, victims,” says the 50-year-old Kolar, dressed in a hooded sweatshirt and sporting graying hair tied back into a pony tail as he sits in his office in a less than hospitable prefab Prague apartment complex. Kolar says in his experience very few cases of bullying are ever investigated. Teachers and police are often at a loss as to what to do and school administrators are often against airing the institution’s dirty laundry in public for fear of damaging its reputation. Surveys conducted in the post-communist era indicate that at least 90 percent of teachers are unable to discover, much less resolve bullying incidents. Kolar says this reflects the fact that, to date, teacher’s colleges in the Czech Republic offer no systematic training on how to prevent violence in schools.

In that sense, the Pist incident came to a typical conclusion. Even before the police arrived, the group of five delinquents confessed that they had done similar things to several other victims in the past. They tried to make light of the affair: “Look, we were just playing around and nothing ever happened to anyone.” The teacher characterized two of the culprits as “troublemakers” and the other three as boys who “you would never expect” to be involved in something like this.

The police closed the case after a month, describing it as a misdemeanor at most, and handed it off to the municipality. To this day, more than five months after the incident, the local misdemeanor commission has yet to look into the case, saying they have not had the time. The School Inspectorate, according to its spokesman Libor Vacek, has yet to examine the incident because by law it must wait for a report on the results of the investigation from the police or the municipal authorities. The mother of the victimized boy is nervous about the whole affair, and she suspects that the school would like to sweep the whole incident under the carpet. She would like the culprits to be punished at least for the psychological damage incurred by her son, perhaps by a bad mark for behavior. “We have to wait for the results of the misdemeanor proceedings. After all, we cannot punish them twice,” says Pavel Rygl, a teacher at the school. And if the municipality decides that nothing really happened, will he agree? “No, what they did was serious, but in that case I would not want to give a lower mark for behavior at the end of the year. That wouldn’t have any educational impact,” says the teacher.

Principal Dagmar Ceslova has similar arguments. She now sees the September defenestration in the same way as the teacher: not as a real case of bullying, but rather as an example of boyish bad behavior that perhaps got a little out of control. In the meantime, a specialist from the Opava pedagogical-psychological office visited the school to talk about the dangers of hazing with the children, and a criminologist will also be making an appearance to discuss the same issues. The ninth-graders are now on their best behavior, according to their teacher, because just the presence of the police in their school put a good scare into them. In addition, some of the ninth-graders’ parents sent a petition to the school to protest that the police were even called in. “They were afraid that this could damage the ninth-graders in gaining admission to other schools,” Ceslova says. “Did we know what to do about it? We didn’t know. That’s normal,” Rygl adds.

Come Back, We Believe You Now

While each case of bullying can be examined with a greater or lesser degree of strict meticulousness or loose benevolence, surveys suggest that conflicts among children should be taken seriously.

In communist-era Czechoslovakia, nobody talked about bullying, but the conditions of that regime were fertile ground for it, according to Kolar. Nevertheless, the experts and teachers interviewed for this article feel that along with the advent of freedom and the relaxing of morals, there is more violence in the classroom today than 15 or 20 years ago. “Today’s children have a much broader choice of activities and incredible opportunities to get a running start on life, but they are also dealing with existential problems. They are confused, they don’t have a firm anchor, it is difficult for them to find the right direction,” Kolar says.

This is also why the Education Ministry has started to take the issue of bullying seriously. The ministry’s main expert on bullying, Bohumil Stejskal, says he answers up to three calls a day on a special hot line set up to deal with the issue. Mostly, the calls are from the parents of children who have fallen victim to bullying. Often the problem can be resolved over the phone with the parents and the school’s administrators, but sometimes Stejskal has to head out to deal with it personally. “The last time, a woman called, saying that the other kids were yelling ‘you nigger’ at her son. So I called the principal. He promised to resolve everything on his own. Two days later, the same woman called again to say that the situation had calmed down.” Another time, he had to deal over the phone with a problem from the Central Bohemian region. A mother called to say her son was refusing to go to school because a fellow student had beaten him up and repeatedly pulled his clothes down in front of the class to make fun of him. The principal promised to quickly resolve the issue and the victimized boy is now in another classroom where he has a good friend. Stejskal doesn’t try to find out if there are any further developments in these cases – there isn’t time for it, he says.

A few weeks ago, a call came through on the hot line from the parents of a girl who had started skipping classes. When they explained the circumstances of the case to Stejskal, he decided to go deal with it in person. What had happened was that the girl was sexually harassed for a long time by a fellow student. When she tried to defend herself, he slapped her. Since the school was not taking any action at all, the parents called the police. The girl went through a humiliating investigation, but her girlfriends were afraid to stand by their initial testimony during the investigation at the school, and so the police closed the case with the conclusion that nothing had happened. The girl stood in front of the class, declared that “all of you are chicken” because they had failed to support her, and then ran away from school and refused to come back.

It was in this situation that Stejskal decided to head out to the school. “I met with the teacher and the parents and I told them that above all they need to show the girl that the school believes her. She really doesn’t have any more friends? I asked.” In the end, it seemed that after all she did have a few girlfriends. They sent her text-messages: “Come back, we believe you,” and the girl returned to the school. The assailant got off with a reprimand from the principal.

Why is that Kid Grimacing?

The problem, according to the experts, is that schools are usually reluctant to expose cases of bullying because they are concerned that investigating the issue too much might cast a negative light on them. One such case occurred three years ago at an elementary school in Hostinne. A group of students there had repeatedly beaten up a weaker boy. Since the school was not dealing with the situation, the father of the victim came to the school, found the leader of this group of bullies and gave him a slap in the face. The principal decided to press criminal charges against the father; the father did the same against the principal for not dealing with the violence in his school and talked about it to television reporters. Then a group of teachers and students sent a petition to the Education Ministry, claiming that the victim had made everything up and that he was damaging the reputations of the school and the town. The family moved away and the school closed the book on the whole incident.

But such indifferent and maladroit reactions are not enough to make Michal Kolar sit by idly. From his Prague office, he travels around the Czech Republic, explaining the dangers of bullying, teaching people how to deal with it, and helping out with specific cases. “You can’t influence all of society, but you can influence individual schools. I can attest to that,” says Kolar. As the first case for its project, he and his colleagues chose an elementary school in Hradec Kralove that had already dealt with a number of hazing incidents. “We had worked with them before and we sensed a great willingness to resolve the situation,” the psychotherapist says. The results are surprising: just four months after the launch of Kolar’s program, the frequency of bullying incidents at the school declined by 42.5 percent. In the classes with whom Kolar’s team worked, the incidence of direct and indirect bullying declined by 50 to 75 percent.

It’s a weekday evening and there’s a stir of activity in front of the school. Students from the higher grades are gradually spilling out of their various after-school programs. A boy in a skater’s jacket is entertaining two girls with a story, another one is talking on his cell phone. Dana Hladikova, a math teacher who for the past eight years has doubled as a guidance counselor, is waiting in the hallway on the second floor. “I had already dealt with some of the things I read in Kolar’s book. But it’s when you see the professional literature recommending the same things that you start to speak about them with your colleagues and the atmosphere in the school starts to change,” says Hladikova, a woman in her 40s who seems strict but at the same time empathetic. She discovered Kolar’s book The Pain of Bullying a few years ago in the school library (the Education Ministry bought copies for every elementary and high school in the country). “For instance, there was one interesting thing in there that not every teacher realizes,” Hladikova says. “When the children witness a teacher disregarding the signs of bullying, and the aggressor getting away with it, the class will tend to be on the side of the aggressor and the teacher will then have trouble getting to the bottom of such problems.”

Kolar’s two-year program was launched at the school in Hradec Kralove in 2002. He started out by mapping the situation at the school with surveys, which was followed up by a course for teachers. The psychotherapist set up a school team to fight against bullying. Just before Kolar’s arrival, Hladikova had to deal with a textbook case of bullying being underestimated. “It had been going on since the third grade. Already back then, the boy had complained to his teacher of a problem with a fellow student, but she dismissed him by saying, ‘Well you also misbehave,’ ” adding that the boy did have discipline problems such as talking during class. In the sixth grade, though, he suddenly announced that he was moving to another school because he was being bullied. That was when Hladikova, as the school’s guidance counselor, got involved in the case. She spoke with the boy and his father. “Their decision was final, but it was still necessary to resolve the issue, in order to help prevent any children from becoming potential future victims,” recalls the teacher. She discovered that the aggressor had been preying on other children for years, including sexual molestation. “He just basically pinned them down and did things that they did not find pleasant,” she says. The bully continued in his attacks, and so after visits to psychologists and psychiatrists, the school agreed with the boy’s mother that he should spend some time in a diagnostic institute for asocial behavior. He then enrolled in another school in Hradec Kralove.

“If this case had been brought under control in the third grade and help had been sought from a psychiatrist in time, it never would have had to go this far,” Hladikova concludes.

Experience at this school does show that when such cases are caught in time, they can play out differently. Hladikova recalls the case of one boy who forced someone else to carry his bag and yelled vulgar abuse at several girls. Another boy terrorized a fellow student by constantly insulting his parents. But these problems were quickly resolved because the teachers noticed these incidents in time and spoke with the students involved and their parents. It also helped that the boys started to attend therapy. “When you show an interest, it always helps,” Hladikova says.

This begs the question, if it’s so simple, why don’t all teachers show an interest? “It looks simple, but many teachers don’t realize that they should be interested in the relationships within the classroom. I don’t ever recall anyone at teacher’s college or in the education sector ever going over this with us. People just didn’t talk about such things.”

Stejskal confirms the necessity of “showing an interest”: “The teacher has to see what’s going on under the surface of the classroom’s daily routine. Why does one person grimace when someone else is called on? Why did someone’s marks get worse suddenly? Why is this person always missing a ruler or something lately, when before they always had everything in order? Bullying begins inconspicuously.”

We Didn’t Think of That

Hladikova now works 18 hours a week teaching math along with another four hours of guidance counseling. “But if you want to do a good job, you need dozens of hours of overtime,” she says with a smile.

Her approach sounds simple: she tries to get the children to speak of their own accord with her or other teachers about bullying or even about indications of possible bullying. It is not simple. It seems simple enough to just knock on the door of the guidance counselor’s office, but many children could view it as a form of snitching, which is a very sensitive issue in the schoolyard. Hladikova says her school in Hradec Kralove has managed to overcome this psychological barrier. “The children have gotten used to the fact that we are interested in such things from the very beginning. They come to me immediately or to their teacher. I speak with them politely, I praise them for coming to confide in me, and I stick to what we agreed,” she says, explaining how she gains their trust. “It’s important for the children to know that the teacher will do something about the concerns they came to express and that the situation in the classroom will improve. Then they don’t consider it to be snitching,” adds Monika Subrova, who teaches history and civics. Subrova recently experienced a case when a bunch of sixth graders came to her to complain that some boys from the ninth grade are laughing at one of their classmates – a boy from a lower-income family – because of his clothes. “Thanks to that, I was able to have a word with those boys and they left him alone.”

After Kolar’s visit, teachers at the school in Hradec Kralove began holding special classroom sessions to talk with the students about bullying. “The children condemn bullying, although we tend not to use the word ‘bullying,’ ” Hladikova says.

“We speak more about relations in the classroom, about how the students behave toward one another, about how anything can be resolved politely and calmly,” Subrova says. “For instance, we play a game where the children write down on cards who they would like to take with them on a boat as a captain and who they would not definitely not want aboard. That’s how you find out right away who is being marginalized and what’s actually going on in the classroom.”

Thanks to a concerted effort against bullying, the atmosphere in the school has changed over the last few years, teachers say. Hladikova says many of her colleagues work into the evening on class activities, extracurricular programs, or writing grant applications. The children appreciate it. “Some older teachers told me, ‘We never thought about it in that way, but we can see that it works.’ ”

Stejskal, the ministry official who deals with bullying, believes in this approach as well. “A favorable atmosphere in the classroom and school can eliminate bad manners and violence. And what does such an atmosphere look like? We have to show children more kindness in the family and in the school. Children will respect a teacher when they recognize that he or she likes them and will stand by them,” he says. He personally is against strict disciplinary measures, such as the suggestions of some of his Polish colleagues to institute school uniforms or to ban cell phones. “The biggest mistake is to think that the whole thing is just the school’s affair. Let’s think about what kind of examples we grown-ups are setting for our children.”

This year, the school in Hradec Kralove plans to conduct a survey that should show how far the school has managed to minimize bullying with the help of Kolar’s methods. The teachers know from anecdotal evidence that the results are already in. To prove this point, Hladikova calls to mind another case: “It was the end of the year. A strong boy started to attack a physically weaker boy. He would walk by him in the halls and suddenly punch him in the stomach.” The school’s system helped in this case as well: the counselor knew that the aggressor was a boy who had himself once been a victim of bullying. “I told him: I know you’re not mean, I helped you once as well,” Hladikova says. “He broke down and cried, and since then there haven’t been any problems.”

This article originally appeared in the 12–18 March, 2007 issue of the Czech weekly Respekt.

Translated by Victor Gomez.


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